From great heights to beach life

“Hello palm trees on sandy beaches and the sound of crashing waves!”

Induruwa and Galle, Sri Lanka

Our decent from about 2000m high to sea level began after a delicious breakfast. The estimated time of travel was about 6 hours and although a long drive I was looking forward to taking in the scenic views along the way.

We left Nuwara Eliya on the A7 highway which took us past some beautiful waterfalls. We first stopped to take in the view of St Clair’s Falls which is called the Little Niagara of Sri Lanka followed by a cup of tea at the Tea Castle. From here you can get an impressive but far away view over Devon’s Falls which is the 19th highest waterfall in Sri Lanka. Leaving the town of Talawaele behind, we continued to travel through the Ceylon tea plantations and small towns while we meandered downwards. I did have to close my eyes on some occasions as the constant weaving back and forth along the road made for an uncomfortable ride.

Halfway through our journey we stopped for lunch at Kitulgala on the Kelani River which is well known for river rafting.  It was very busy with groups of rafters making their way to the river and even the Tuk-Tuks played their part in helping transport rafts on top of their rooves, dwarfing the Tuk-Tuks.  The vegetation in this area is filled with the Kitul palm tree.  It is the sap from these palm trees that they use to make jaggery.  We went to a lovely spot for lunch overlooking the river at Plantation Hotel where we ordered chicken curry and rice.  The portion of rice was massive completely filling a dinner plate with our chicken curry being two small pieces in some curry sauce.  Nevertheless it was tasty, but might have been wise to share.

A few more hours on the road after lunch and I must admit that I was getting restless sitting in the car, it was very tempting to say ‘Are we there yet?’ every five minutes.  We welcomed the on ramp to the Southern Expressway which did speed our journey up a bit.

We finally made it to Induruwa on the south west coast – hello palm trees on sandy beaches and the sound of crashing waves!

The Whispering Palms hotel is really in an idyllic and quiet location – the sandy beach that stretches out in front of the hotel is ideal for long walks. In the early evenings you can watch, as you walk, the hermit crabs scurry into their little burrows the closer you get to them. It is also an ideal place to watch the sunset or evening rain shower. You can view my hotel review on TripAdvisor.

We spent a fair bit of time relaxing at the hotel pool with the occasional swim in the sea.  The sea was rather rough and we had a few unexpected tumbles along the way – in fact it took me days to get all the sand out of my hair and scalp :).

As much as I love the beach I had not been to Sri Lanka before and hence exploring was a definite must on our list.  First on the exploration list was Galle, a UNESCO world heritage site.  The road from Induruwa to Galle runs parallel to the coast line, taking you past lovely ocean and beach scenery along with roadside stores selling fresh king coconuts.

It also takes you past some of the worst hit areas of the 2004 tsunami.  Evidence of the destruction can still be seen today with house ruins, houses still being repaired along with the sadness clearly felt when locals talk about the natural disaster that affected so many.  As you get closer to Hikkaduwa you can visit the Tsunami museum and view the giant Buddha,  Tsunami Honganji Vihara,  built in remembrance of those that died in the tragedy.

The town of Hikkaduwa is very vibrant with lots of guesthouses, shops and places to eat, it  has been named Hippiduwa by the locals.  Although the coral gardens have been placed under protection you can apparently still see an abundance of marine life on one of the many glass-bottomed boat trips.

As we entered into Galle you could feel how busier the town was.  We headed straight up to The Lady Hill hotel and their rooftop bar for the views of Galle and the sea.  The view does not fail to impress and you can get a good outline of the fort from here.  If it wasn’t for the view I personally did not find anything spectacular about the hotel or bar and the service was a little on the slow side.

We enjoyed our time exploring within the fort walls.  The old Dutch town centre is still full of colonial buildings, most in good repair. Filled with boutique shops and cafés you could spend hours exploring if it was not so hot. I kid you not – my nail polish on my toes started melting, that combined with a walk on the beach later added texture and glittering sand to my toes, who needs nail art!

We managed to find a table at Poonies Kitchen,  an organic health café, on Peddlars street serving some delightful mouth-watering treats and cold drinks.  We did not attempt the ‘world’s best’ carrot cake as it was not gluten free.  But I think my Dad would be a better taste tester as he has tasted many around the world.  It was then on to explore the old Dutch hospital, lighthouse and promenade along the perimeter of the fortifications.

I welcomed the air conditioned car as we made our way back to Induruwa, stopping this time to visit the Sea Turtle Conservation Project.  As endangered species they need all the help they can get and these conservation areas provide a safe haven for the turtles to hatch as naturally as possible before returning them to the ocean.

Next on our exploration list was to do a River Safari on the Madu Ganga River.  We used the company Nilwala River Safari, mainly as they were quick on answering my questions on Facebook messenger making it easy to book.  However, upon arriving at Balapitiya, I suspect that you could easily find other companies to take you.

The area surrounding the river is swampy marshland covered in mangrove forests.  They say there are 64 islands along the river, but some are immersed in water.  The main source of economy for the locals in the cinnamon industry.  We stopped off at one of the cinnamon islands for a cup of cinnamon tea and to get a lesson in cinnamon cultivation, which I must say I found rather fascinating.  First the outer peel is removed from the plant, which they use as fertiliser and then the exposed inner bark is then rubbed with a brass rod to loosen the bark.  Within two quick cuts the inner layer of bark can be removed in one piece.  It is then packed in layers one inside the other and left to dry naturally.  You can purchase cinnamon items on the island and we decided to try the cinnamon oil – amazingly my mosquito bite that I got arriving at the river completely disappeared.  My husband also applied the oil to his bites and they certainly took the redness and itchiness away.  Our precious 20ml of cinnamon oil thankfully made it back with us intact for future use.

The river cruise allows you to take in the views of the river and get up close to the Mangroves, where you should watch out for water monitors!  All tours take you to one of the larger inhabited islands ‘Koth Duwa’ which has an ancient Buddhist Temple that dates back to the oldest kings of Sri Lanka.  You also have the opportunity to visit an open-air fish massage facility – um, no thanks was my reply!  I could think nothing worse than fish nibbling my feet.

Between daytrips and much needed relaxing by the pool we managed to fit in a full Ayurvedic Body massage.  I found it rather relaxing and the head massage definitely helped remove more beach sand that had made its home in my hair.

Our time here on the beach was sadly coming to an end, so we enjoyed one last night watching the sunset, drinking chilled white wine and eating freshly cooked seafood.

The next day we were off to Colombo!

 

Temples, Mist and Trains

“The mist had accumulated during the night and settled like a thick blanket…”

Darjeeling, India


The mist had accumulated during the night and settled like a thick blanket over Darjeeling. It was a complete contrast to the day before, along with a noticeable drop in temperature.

We took a long walk from the hotel to the Japanese Temple. The longer we walked the damper the air became until it eventually started raining. We were absolutely soaked by the time we reached the temple and took respite from the rain by heading up to the prayer room. The atmosphere inside was solemn and peaceful. We were invited to sit down and join in the prayers. Using a small drumming pad and stick we drummed to the same rhythm as the chants, well I tried too.

The weather stayed wet and gloomy for the rest of the day with the only spots of colour appearing from the prayer flags. While sheltering at the bus stop we were delighted by the singing and guitar playing of a young student as he was returning from his guitar lessons. I thought he was just going to play for us but we were amazed when he started singing – it gave me goose bumps.

Exploring more of the town of Darjeeling we wandered around the streets in the mist having lunch in front of the fire in Glenary’s (near the Darjeeling Mall area) and purchased Darjeeling tea at a fraction of the price of the Happy Valley Estate. For our final dinner in Darjeeling we went to the Elgin. The Elgin did not disappoint – it is another hotel that is part of Darjeeling’s colonial history and it is beautifully decorated. We warmed our hands and toes by the crackling fireplaces telling stories and enjoying a selection of mini Indian dishes. The hotel was very accommodating as they normally only cook enough food for hotel guests to have at dinner, so if you would like to dine in the restaurant it is best to book ahead.

The mist had disappeared by the time we woke up in the morning for our long journey back to Bagdogra to catch our flight. This time we had been given permission to take the famous Hill Cart Road. Not used as a main tourist route since a landslide in 2010 it meant the road was extremely quite allowing us the opportunity to take in the magnificent views of mountains, valleys, village life and of course follow the route of the Toy Train.

It is along the Hill Cart Road that you can really see the engineering achievement as the train track has several zigzags and loops on the way to help the train negotiate steep gradients. I am sure going on the train you would be able to appreciate it more but we got the chance to get out of the vehicles a number of times to inspect these zigzags along with another famous loop called Agony Point. When first constructed the loop was so short that at one point the train used to literally overhang the deep gorge below – scary!

Our last stop en route was Tindharia. We bought our entry tickets at the station which was opened in August 1880 before driving further down the hill to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Workshop. It is here that the toy train engines and coaches get repaired.

As the last stop it was then back in for the final drive along the very high and winding roads. If you are not a height person then make sure you grab a seat on the right hand side of the car behind the driver. From the peaceful mountain views you know you are near the airport when everything turns to chaos. The cars hooting, traffic jams and the constant need to rush to get where you are going, took me back to the day when we arrived.

 

 

Batasia Loop on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Joy Ride on the Toy Train

“We travelled on the Toy Train from an altitude of 6812ft to the highest station town at 7404ft.”

Darjeeling, India


“Whoo-woo!” and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was off, slowly leaving the art deco station of Darjeeling behind. Not having 8 hours to take the train the full 55 miles from Siliguri to Darjeeling, we embarked on a Joy Ride on what is loving known as the Toy Train. This was a 2-hour return trip from Darjeeling to Ghum (Ghoom) and back again. Travelling from an altitude of 6812ft to the highest station town at 7404ft.

The train almost hugged the shops and houses when we went past, making it quite easy to touch the walls. The locals used to the train would rush to get their goods off the train tracks while the train passed or would cover their produce with material to keep off the black soot that seemed to be flying through the air in abundance.

The actual cabins and seating were not the most comfortable but it was definitely a special experience – after all the Toy Train has been given UNESCO World Heritage status. The trip allowed you to take in the sounds and sights of the local people as they rushed about their business. The train itself caused a lot of traffic chaos, as when moving along the tracks it made the roads even narrower with everyone fighting from different directions to dash through the gap, often causing the cars to come to a complete stand still with the only movement being hand to hooter.

The Joy Ride stops at the world famous Batasia loop where you get the chance to get off the train while the train negotiates the spiral track with a double loop. Built to reduce the drastic fall in gradient it is considered a great engineering achievement.

The train operators worked rather hard to keep the steam train puffing along the tracks billowing white to black plumes of smoke along the way. We were lucky enough on our return trip to sit near the viewing window in the cabin, where we had front row seats to watch the working of the steam train. It looked hot and sticky and was not surprising when filling up with water that a few workers jumped under the water for a quick refreshing shower.

It was dark by the time we returned back to Darjeeling station and after a full on day filled with activities, we all were rather pleased to jump into a taxi and head for a relaxing evening at the colonial Mayfair Hotel. Walking into what felt like an English garden, we relaxed in the bar in true British style with a Gin and Tonic before sampling the various food dishes at the evening buffet.

Accommodation: Sinclairs Darjeeling
Hotel was clean and functional.  The restaurant was particular good for evening dinners with lots of yummy choices for breakfast.  WiFi intermittent and you need a separate code for each device every day.

Tips: Toy Train
It is a popular route to go from Darjeeling to Ghum so you do need to book in advance. It is great way to see the scenery and watch the workings of a steam train.  I would get your hotel or tour guide to buy tickets for you as you can’t buy them online from outside India.  There is a lot of black soot from the steam train so it is best not to wear white or light coloured clothing.

Characteristic Doors of Malta

Maltese Summer Days

“With over 7000 years of history and a mixture of cultural influences from the surrounding Mediterranean, French and British it has developed its own unique style…”

Malta


On first impression Malta is not a beautiful island in its entirety but look deeper and you will find pockets of interesting and lovely places. With over 7000 years of history and a mixture of cultural influences from the surrounding Mediterranean, French and British it has developed its own unique style and traditions along with what sometimes looks like a hodgepodge of architecture.

We hired a car for the duration of the trip and it certainly made it easier to travel around the island than rely on public transport. As we drove to our accommodation we took in the surroundings which tended to be dry and dusty. The directions to our villa were not exactly accurate and left us in an empty country lane with fields of pumpkins and marrows on either side with no villa in sight. Eventually after numerous phone calls and arranging to meet the caretaker we arrived at our Villa called Samudra, which was like an oasis in this tiny hamlet of Manikata (quite fitting considering Samudra means Ocean).

The owners have done well to keep some of the original features as well as add some modern improvements like air conditioning and an inviting pool without changing the Maltese characteristics. As we were here in Malta for a family wedding, we all managed to stay comfortably at the Villa and enjoy some BBQ’s at the pool and al fresco dining in the converted cave. Throughout our time you could hear the village fireworks as it was ‘Festa’ season when the Maltese hold events to honour the patron saint of the local church – with 365 Churches on Malta, it is not surprising the ‘Festa’ runs from June to October every year.

When we were not at the Villa it was time to go exploring and start finding some of those hidden gems. Our first exploration took us to St Paul’s Bay, previous a fishing village where were introduced to Maltese spicy sausage and Ġbejna (Maltese Goats Cheese) combined in a wrap with Balsamic Vinegar – yummy. It felt great to be out in the warm air and stare across at the ocean. But even though the view across the Bay was lovely it was a pity that the houses further to the north of the Bay were left derelict.

Mellieha Bay was a different story as we come up the hill from Manikata all you saw was a gorgeously blue ocean waiting to be dived into. We were not the only ones that thought this as Ghadira Beach was packed full of sun loungers and umbrellas. The water was warm and clean, well worth a swim but not before having a mouth watering sea food lunch at Point Break. With the temperature reaching over 30 degrees the cool sea breeze and umbrellas gave a welcome break. It was certainly a day for good food as that evening we ventured off to Golden Bay to watch the sunset while drinking crispy white wine and eating a selection of seafood delights at the well recommended Munchies. The manager was extremely pleasant and even told us how to make Mqaret – small packages of sweet pastry filled with a dates and figs that are then deep fried….no wonder we all liked them 🙂

A trip to Malta is not complete without a day trip out to the Blue Lagoon. Situated on the Maltese Island of Comino it is a short ferry ride across from Malta. Having been pre-warned not to go to the Blue Lagoon on a weekend we opted to go on a Friday to miss the local crowds.

Upon entering the Blue Lagoon you are greeted with amazing colours of blue which extend across the lagoon. There is a tiny beach as you leave the ferry for land and hundreds and hundreds of deck chairs and umbrellas covering the rocks. It feels a bit claustrophobic as you walk to find a spot to sit but once you find a place all you can do is see the expanse of blue in front of you. The water is crystal clear and although not exactly a snorkelling haven you do get to see the odd stripy fish further out. Alternatively for a better way to enjoy your time is to grab a lilo and float around…complete relaxation.

Next on the agenda was to visit the Fortress City – Valletta. It was a scorching hot day around 40 degrees, this was mainly due to the fact that you do not seem to get any sea breeze in the city due to the high walls. This made our walk around a bit uncomfortable and I am sure we would have seen more had we not been eyeing out the cold frappuccino in everyone’s hands. Nevertheless it is an old city with meandering narrow streets with a collection of churches, museums steeped in history making this a UNESCO World Heritage site. The main streets are the most interesting as if you tend to wander to the outskirts little has been done to restore the buildings to their former glory.

It was towards the end of our trip that we once again entered Valletta for Lisa and Johns wedding, held in the beautiful Mary Jesus Christ Church for a lovely ceremony. Leaving Valletta behind we all took coaches to the Wardija Hilltop Village where we celebrated at the Palazzo Promontorio while enjoying great food, company, the perfect sunset and a visit from Elvis!


Accommodation: Samudra Villa, Manikata 
Property can sleep 8 people, has air conditioning, a pool and BBQ area. It is close to the Golden Sands Beach, Rivera beach and Ghajn Tuffieha.  You do need a car although the hamlet has a bus stop and it takes about 15-20mins to walk to the beach. Booked through James Villa Holidays.

Sea Lions rule the bay

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador


The Galapagos – a place so enriched with wildlife, it is hard to imagine some of these beautiful creatures are still endangered.

The Galapagos – takes you back in time, to a prehistoric world, a world filled with giant tortoises and iguanas. There are many ways I can describe these islands and for me and I am sure for everyone that has visited or will be visiting a complete privilege, an all enthralling experience each and every day.

I was lucky enough to spend a week in the Galapagos, with 5 days being on a small cruise boat, Aida Maria, exploring the south islands with 14 other just as excitable passengers.

My first few days on Santa Cruz island were like being part of a cartoon – a magical land where everything seems perfect. I walked along the pure white sand of Turtle Bay while watching deep black marine iguanas merge from the sea, returning just a slight tilting of the head in acknowledgment that you were there. There were plenty of them along with bright red crabs scattered on the rocks, peering and watching you warily as you passed.

If time had stood still, this is where I would want to be! I know it sounds surreal and I will admit I asked myself the same question was everything truly happening, was I actually gazing out at the sunset over the ocean while spotting elegant manta-rays somersaulting out the water at intermittent occasions.

The boat I stayed on was great and the bonus was I had a small cabin to myself with bathroom. There was enough space on deck to enjoy the views and something I am not used too – mounds and mounds of food. My only excuse for eating it all was I needed to keep my energy up for my next excursion – which for me generally meant racing around in the water with my camera trying to capture all the fish I could see.

My route took me around the south islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Española and Floreana. Each offered something new and more of the same beautiful creatures.

The sea lions ruled the bay – on every island they were irresistibly cute: dreaming contently in the sun, playing in the surf and swimming around you while you snorkelled.

While I wasn’t in or on the water, I was walking around the islands visiting both marine and land iguanas, seeing the famous blue footed boobies – you guessed it the ones with the bright blue feet and watching the albatross waddle to the cliff edge to take off into the sky.

On my last full day sailing I got a chance to snorkel in an amazing place – Devils Crown. The water was crystal clear and I got to experience snorkelling with black tip reef sharks (plenty of them just lurking below you), marble rays, turtles, tropical fish and sea lions all the time while admiring the stunning rock bottom covered in electric blue and orange starfish.

´Can I stay longer?` was my first thought when it was time to leave this place. A place I hope to one day return. A place I will hope will stay as enriched and magical for all who visit.